It’s a different experience watching a movie with a hard-core, in-the-demo fan, especially if the movie is a young-adult property aimed at another gender and generation than you happen to be. If you've ever tried it, you were probably amused.
Leaving the U.S. premiere Monday night of said young-adult movie (“Insurgent”), said plus-one (teenage cousin, an unscientific and unwitting focus group) waxed enthusiastic about many developments she had witnessed over the previous two hours. Then she paused and said, with somewhat less certainty, “But there really was a lot of action.”
That, it should be noted, is by design. The latest movie in the Shailene Woodley-Theo James franchise — adapted of course from Veronica Roth’s book series that kicked off with “Divergent” — contains some huge action set pieces. There are rooftop chase scenes and large-scale gun battles and buildings collapsing in full Michael Bay fashion.
For its second installment about trait-based factions in a dystopian-ish world, the film switched directors (Robert Schwentke from Neil Burger) and added a production company (David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman's Mandeville Films, joining Lucy Fisher and Doug Wick’s Red Wagon Entertainment). Maybe most significantly, those producers hired some veteran action writers, including Mark Bomback and Akiva Goldsman, who have a raft of experience with these kinds of set-piece-y movies.
Their goal was to go hard on the action, and, they succeeded. The 3-D “Insurgent,” which opens Friday, is a fast-paced action movie that eschews the more intimate and expository moments of the first film. There is much less romance, and a fair bit more violence, often of the jackbooted variety. Even when a pause happens, it’s usually brief. And even when exposition happens, it’s in anticipation of, in the aftermath of or even during a big fight or chase scene.
Many of these action moments offer a kind of homage to (if you’re generous) or knockoff of (if you’re not) movies like “Inception and “The Matrix” — particularly the last 20 minutes, when you’re likely to think of both films, as worlds fall apart and come together via effects-driven sequences inside a character’s mind.
The reason for all this is, at least in part, audience-driven: Studio Lionsgate is hoping the film can expand to a male constituency. Roth’s books skew heavily to young females (the author herself is just 26), and so did the first movie. That’s all fine for a midlevel hit, but it’s not nearly enough for a major blockbuster. “Twilight” appealed primarily to women, but up and down the age spectrum. And “Hunger Games” has some male crossover, which is why each of its installments have taken in at least $330 million in the U.S.
“Divergent,” in contrast, grossed $150 million domestically. That’s a respectable enough number, but not nearly sufficient for the kind of tentpole the company needs now that “The Hunger Games” is starting to wind down. Enter the male audience.
Action, it should be said, can also open up foreign markets, something the series could benefit from. (The first movie took in a modest $137 million overseas.)
There’s a feeling this might be the moment to grab for a bigger audience. When it comes to U.S. box office, these YA franchises tend to look like a bell curve — the middle part of the series is the most popular. The highest grossing movies of the five-part “Twilight” franchise were the second and third films; the biggest number notched by any of the three “Hunger Games” movies so far is the second. Fans roll in after the first film and they don’t always stick around, so try to expand the base while you can.
Can it work? The tracking so far for “Divergent” suggests an opening weekend box office of about $55 million to $60 million, which would put it on nearly exactly the same trajectory as the first movie (it took in $54 million in its opening weekend).
Still, there’s some precedent given the male-centric appeal of “The Hunger Games,” also from Lionsgate. And “Insurgent” has a stretch of runway on the release calendar. The movie opens on a weekend when there isn’t much for young men (“Chappie” is long gone and “Cinderella” isn’t going to cut it). "Insurgent" has two weeks before “Furious 7” comes in and gobbles them all.
My cousin’s twin male brother wasn’t at the "Insurgent" premiere Monday night, and he doesn’t know much about the movie. Over the next few weeks, Lionsgate is hoping he and his friends find out in a hurry.